Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Global Warming and World Views, Part II

Global Warming and World Views, Part II

Last week I started from the fact that flying takes about ten times as much fossil fuel as riding trains, and imagined how an atheist would reason out a position on whether flying is morally justified, given the news about global warming. I showed that our purported atheist could come out either in favor of flying or opposed to it, but the reasons for each conclusion came down to a matter of choosing rationales to suit one's conclusions. If you think getting enjoyment out of life is what it's all about, you'll fly as much as you can and leave the climate catastrophes for someone else to worry about. If you think man's presence on the planet is a bad idea on the whole, you'll favor the least intrusive modes of transportation possible. This leads to images of pre-agricultural primitive peoples tip-toeing through the jungle, leaving no trace of their passage. I'm sure the imaginative reader can come up with other rationalizations for either view, but that's what they are: rationalizations. You pick the outcome you want to get, and then you go looking for reasons to back it up.

I also said I'd take the example of a different worldview and see what conclusions you can draw from it as well. Here goes.

Before you say the opposite of atheism must be theism, hold on. We can keep this entirely at the level of philosophy. Instead of atheism, I should have said that the person I had in mind last time believed that there is no such thing as moral law apart from what somebody thinks. Because what I'm going to contrast that with today is the viewpoint that there IS such a thing as moral law, independent of what you or I think or say or feel, and even independent of the existence of humanity altogether.

What I mean is this. No one would quibble with the notion that whether or not people are on this planet, the law of gravity would still cause the earth to revolve around the sun. The law of gravity doesn't depend on our agreeing on it, or even knowing anything about it. Now what I'm proposing as an alternate view is the idea that common notions of right and wrong such as "don't kick babies" and "don't steal cars" are just as much an independent, inviolate part of the universe as the law of gravity. Anywhere there are sentient beings with intelligence and will, this theory goes, you find these moral principles, and they are the same everywhere.

This theory goes by various names at various times, but "natural law" is probably the most common one. It is "natural" in the sense that it is part of nature, part of the universe's structure. I won't attempt to justify it at this point, although people have done that, and not just religious people either. What I will do is to use it as a basis to adjudicate this question of whether it's moral to fly planes, knowing that you produce less greenhouse gases when you ride the train.

It turns out that the question is just as hard, but for different reasons. There seems to be a universal bias against what I'd call waste, for example. Taking a thing that is good for people and simply trashing it without benefiting from it yourself is something that hardly anybody would argue to be a good thing. If—and this is a big "if"—it turns out that our 200-year love affair with fossil fuels utterly wrecks the planet—and by this I mean, makes it completely uninhabitable, like burning down a house—then, well, I'd say anyone who burned anything combustible in the last 200 years is partly responsible. But the trouble with this notion is that we cannot know the future. That is why the "if" is so big.

You will meet people who will tell you that we have that amount of certainty about the problem, and it's time to start doing something about it. The only sure way to tell they're right is not to do anything and then wait and see. This approach has its own problems. There is a kind of prudential judgment that is part of natural law, in the sense that people are not generally expected to change their behavior based on remote possibilities that they are not intimately involved in. And that is what we should apply here.

The biggies in natural law concern how you treat your family, your friends, your neighbors, and so on. Giant geopolitical things like global warming may be the proper concern for certain specialists, but it betrays a kind of inverted set of priorities to put global warming ahead of friendships, fulfillment of duties, and charity, which is an old-fashioned word for love. I think natural lawyers would say, "If your life involves air travel and is otherwise following generally accepted moral principles, then you should consider using a less polluting form of transportation. But if your ability to do good would be seriously impaired, go ahead and fly." Of course, different people will come to different conclusions using these principles, even if they start from the same data. But that's true of almost any moral problem that isn't on the extremes. The same was true of our conclusions when we started from the atheistic or individualistic assumption.

So what good is all this? "You haven't answered the question!" you say. "Should I or should I not fly rather than ride trains?" Never mind planes or trains for the moment. Never mind global warming, even. The important question is not what mode of transportation to take, and not even whether New York City will be under water in 2106, but how you decide what is right and wrong, and what you believe the world is about, and why you are here in the first place. Get those things right, and the little stuff will take care of itself.

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